Monthly Archives: July 2005

ID advocate admits it ‘has no content’

”I’m not pushing to have [ID] taught as an ‘alternative’ to Darwin, and neither are they,” he says in response to one question about Discovery’s agenda. ”What’s being pushed is to have Darwinism critiqued, to teach there’s a controversy. Intelligent design itself does not have any content.”

The evolution of George Gilder Boston Globe, 7/27 [linked from pharyngula]

It’s refreshing to see an ID advocate admit that there is no content to intelligent design.

As for their claim that they all they want to do is teach the controversy — great. Teach the controversy. Teach scientific controversies in science class. Since there’s no content to ID, there’s no scientific controversy. So what kind of controversy is it? It’s a political & social controversy. Political & social controversies absolutely should be taught in schools, in history, social science, current issues type classes. Heck, even comparative religion classes — why not? I’d love to see kids learning about other political & social controversies about children’s education: the controversy over sex ed, for instance, and how right-wingers want to teach abstinence & sexual ethics instead of sexual and reproductive healthcare. Or hey, how about we ‘teach the controversy’ regarding going to war on disputed evidence?

how the personal became political

How I Became a Freedom Fighter — A story in two parts:

Part 1: As a teenager in the 80s, I knew libraries were pretty cool. I used them to pursue various odd interests too embarrassing to blog (e.g., the various sequels to The Scarlet Pimpernel). When things were unspeakably tough for me at home, libraries were a refuge. When my friend’s parents burned her science fiction and fantasy out of fears of ‘satanism’, and forbade her to read anything not assigned by church or school, libraries were more than a refuge: they saved her sanity. When I read in history and newspapers alike about librarians or the American Library Association standing up against would-be book-burners or book-banners, librarians seemed actually heroic as well as sane: Defenders of Freedom! Purveyors of Knowledge! Keepers of the Light! And so on.

Gentle Reader, I became a Librarian, and eventually an Internet Evangelist. Libraries and librarians are an obvious and unqualified good: they provide access to information. They let people make their own choices. I started using email and bulletin boards as a student in the late 80s, and was thrilled by these new communication technologies. As a librarian in the 90s it was obvious that what we now call the Internet was a tremendous multiplier: people would ultimately be able to access anything, but more than that, they would be able to publish anything. Democracy! Printing Presses! Gutenberg! Revolution! The Ultimate Fulfillment of Human Potential! And so on.

Part 2: In the late 90s, I was a tech educator & librarian, in San Francisco. I ran an educational center at the Exploratorium, one of the coolest museums ever, dedicated to letting people learn how to learn. I was all about experiential learning. Plus I got to play with a lot of cool media technology.

Unfortunately, it seemed that despite the best efforts of librarians, Human Potential hadn’t been quite fulfilled yet. The censorware wars were raging as states and universities and localities tried to ‘protect’ their citizens and employees from information. Congress passed the Telecommunications Reform Act in 1996, simultaneously banning ‘indecent’ communications and lowering media ownership limits — the sole nod toward Human Potential in that benighted legislation was the establishment of the E-Rate program to pass some money to libraries and schools for Internet access. Two years later Congress passed the Mickey Mouse Protection Act (aka the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act) and the wretched Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Watching all this legal and political maneuvering with frustration, I was increasingly interested in the details of the seemingly arbitrary rules, and how the grand principles were oftentimes frustrated by those details. So I applied to law school, and was thrilled to be accepted at Boalt — at that time, the only law school that really did public interest IP. I knew of Professor Pam Samuelson’s work, and found out that she had just endowed a law clinic to work on issues of law, technology & public policy — I couldn’t be happier. So I went to law school, and worked on a bunch of cool projects before and since. With any luck, I’ll keep on figuring out ways to get by in the world, using my skills & knowledge, and trying to be a net positive. Pretty much what most people do, I guess.

On my best days, I love people. As a species we’re just unbelievably brilliant. We’re good at talking & thinking. We’re so good at it, in fact, that we constantly devise new ways to do it, better and more efficiently and more often and in different funky ways and over different media. From art to science to household gossip, it’s all about us communicating to each other, using movement, sound, vision; different languages for different messages in different media. Speaking, writing, printing, broadcasting, blogging: using every sense and every force of nature we shape the world around us, just to talk to one another. “Information wants to be free” is a canard. Information has no wants or desires. People want information to be free. It seems to be human nature — maybe animal nature, maybe the nature of all life — to communicate, to communicate freely.

It’s probably only natural that some would feel threatened by this human urge to communicate, and others would see it as a potential resource for exploitation. Any force of nature can be dammed for profit or the pleasures of control. Hundreds of years ago, the efforts of governments to control printing presses led to copyright statutes and sedition laws. And in response, people said No! We want to increase and share information, and in this country these revolutionaries devised the First Amendment and assigned copyrights to Authors, not printers.

Today, the struggles continue: governments pass laws regulating speech, punish people for sharing information, and hand the control of information to media corporations. And in response, 15 years ago, some people got together and formed the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The staff at EFF work to protect our rights to talk, to listen, and to share information using the tremendous power of communications technology. Because of their labors, in part, people have more opportunities to stand up and speak, write, print, broadcast, and blog. So happy 15th birthday, EFF. May there be many more.

girls go(t) game

Hillary Clinton has jumped all over the Grand Theft Auto downloadable sex mod scandal, apparently in an attempt to shore up her right-wing base and reconnect with the Tipper Gore Fan Club. USA Today 7/14; wikinews 7/17; salon.com 7/22; gtaSanAndreas links to a video of the mod in action]. Ted Frank on Overlawyered reminds us of a similar culture-war foray from the Democrats — Bill Clinton’s 1992 attack on Sister Souljah — and is pretty funny to boot:

Me, I’m just amused by the thought of class action attorneys trolling for a named plaintiff parent who will testify that, while she was okay for her little Johnny to buy a game involving drug dealing, gambling, carjacking, cop-shooting, prostitution, throat-slashing, baseball-bat beatings, drive-by shootings, street-racing, gang wars, profanity-laced rap music, homosexual lovers’ quarrels, blood and gore, and “Strong Sexual Content,” she is shocked, shocked to learn that the game also includes an animation at about the level of a Ken doll rubbing up against an unclothed Barbie doll with X-rated sound effects, and is thus a victim of both consumer fraud and intense emotional distress, entitled to actual and punitive damages totalling $74,999 per identically-situated class member in the state.

Having posted this, I have to comment on a) the class action schtick is just unnecessary; this anecdote stands alone; b) I wrinkled my nose at a few whiffs of sexist patronizing & homophobia: the contemptible ‘named plaintiff parent’ of the anecdote is of course female (because Donald Wildmon & crew are just not funny, I guess) and Overlawyered’s list of social ills includes, along with various depictions of violence, “homosexual lovers’ quarrels”. Dude. When my spouse & I fight, it’s ill, all right, but not “throat-slashing, baseball-bat beating” ill. Get some perspective.

Speaking of sexism & Grand Theft Auto, feministing raised the concern about the frequent sex-violence connection in popular entertainment. Commenter erin shed some light, which I’ll quote in full since I can’t point directly to it:

I’ve done some research on game patches, and unfortunately, the majority of those out there serve to further exploit female characters (avatars). For example, in the Xtreme Beach Volleyball game, there is a nudity patch which allows the player to play in full nude mode. No big surprise that all of the volleyball players are female. There is also a patch for BloodRayne 2 that allows a player to actually change the breast size of Rayne, inflating or deflating to one’s personal desire. These patches are readily available on gaming websites and message boards, and are fairly easy to use for any semi-experienced gamer.

However, there are also some female gamers who are designing patches to further enhance their gameplaying experience as well, kind of a proto-feminist hacker art movement. There are a few patches for the Tomb Raider series that allow a player to “gender bend” Lara Croft, turning her into a drag queen, dominatrix, or queer babe.

For more on these patches, look at Anne-Marie Schleiner’s article “Does Lara Croft Wear Fake Polygons?” www.opensorcery.net/lara2.html

Posted by: erin at July 11, 2005 11:16 PM

What’s the remedy for stupid, sexist, ridiculous, offensive, insensitive, unsatisfying speech? More speech. These female gamer/hackers get that. And so do some universities and businesses. The current monoculture in video games isn’t ‘just the way it is’; it’s a result of social forces and trends. These social forces and trends are hackable and that’s an opportunity.

update 8/15:

On the sex-violence issue, shakespeare’s sister linked to an article about research showing no change in aggression from playing aggressive video games. The paper is Williams, Dmitri & Skoric, Marko (2005). Internet Fantasy Violence: A Test of Aggression in an Online Game. Communication Monographs, 22(2), p.217-233, available at https://netfiles.uiuc.edu/dcwill/www/CMWilliamsSkoric.pdf.

Most intriguing, though, the rest of shakespeare’s sister’s post on gaming and kick-ass girl heroes talked about lance mannion’s concerns about boys hitting girls in action media (video games, movies, comics). Sh-Sis isn’t too concerned about it, and neither am I. But I’m glad she brought it up, because often, while watching Buffy, Xena, Lara Croft, and the like, I experience a split-second cultural response to the gender: “There’s a boy hitting a girl!” Or, sometimes, “There’s two girls fighting!” I never have a gender consciousness moment like, “There’s two boys fighting!” This learned response annoys me; my own mind is colonized; I know it, but how can I turn it off?

As for boys hitting girls in video games, I’m going to throw out an aggressive opinion and see how it ages: I’m all for it. To the extent there is violence in video games, I want it to be equal opportunity violence. I don’t want female exceptionalism. In the real world, boys hit girls all the time, despite the politesses of “boys shouldn’t hit girls”. Those politesses haven’t stopped gendered violence and I have a sneaking feeling that they contribute to it. Combining two different instruction sets (“girls are special; don’t hit them” with “but it’s okay to hit otherwise”) is surely just going to lead to confusion and anger and a well-founded sense of injustice among young people of the okay-to-hit variety. A stripped down rule set (“don’t hit”) seems much less confusing & much less likely to cause gender-based anger.

Wherein I Defend Ann Coulter from Charges of Plagiarism (Pro Bono)

Ann Coulter recently took some heat in the blogosphere for allegedly ‘plagiarizing’ from conservative magazines in her 6/29 article, “Thou Shalt Not Commit Religion”. [why are we back 7/20; the rude pundit 7/1; Raw Story 7/20] Raw Story “found Coulter’s work to be at worst plagiarism and at best a cut-and-paste repetition of points authored by conservative religious groups in the early 1990s.” Gods forbid I actually defend that person, but let’s be a little less free with tossing around terms like ‘plagiarism’. The concept of plagiarism is to some extent a ‘moral’ counterpart to copyright infringement, and suffers from some of the same absolutist tendencies.

Plagiarism is an attempt to take credit for someone else’s work. It could be reasonably used to describe either passing off the substance of someone else’s work as one’s own, or as passing off the exact written expression as one’s own — this latter form might also be copyright infringement. Wikipedia [7/27] describes it as

Plagiarism refers to the use of another’s ideas, information, language, or writing, when done without proper acknowledgment of the original source. Essential to an act of plagiarism is an element of dishonesty in attempting to pass off the plagiarised work as original.

It’s quite obvious that Coulter cut-and-pasted descriptions & paraphrased descriptions. Her article is better described as a list with a short 3-paragraph diatribe at the end. Coulter did source some of her list items, when they included full quotes; she failed to source the paraphrased list items. A problem in an academic article and, one might argue, a problem if you are hoping to be taken seriously. But not really a serious problem for someone like Ann Coulter who dashes random crap off in the form of a diatribe. In fact, while acknowledging each & every source of an “idea[], information, language, or writing” might be lovely, it is not common practice. And especially not in the world of editorial columnists & pundits. Wikipedia points out that an essential element of plagiarism is dishonesty. Not to be all morally relativistic here (Ann would hate that), but what qualifies as ‘honesty’ is circumstantial: in some circumstances an omission might be dishonest, and in other circumstances it would be expected or welcomed, and the inclusion of the information might be distracting, misleading, or unnecessary.

In this instance, Ann’s paraphrasings are pretty short and generic to that particular perspective. The point of listing the individual items is to describe the works of art, not create a bibliography of conservative scholarship. Could she have cited to the original articles that she saw the description in? Sure, that would have been helpful. Does it really matter? Eh. So she’s scholastically lazy. That’s hardly the worst of her sins. And it’s not like people are going to be quoting her for her deathless prose.

Rather than trying to diss Ann Coulter for her sloppy citation methods (which sounds a lot less serious than ‘plagiarism’), it would be more interesting & helpful & informative to address the substance (such as it is) of her commentary: explain & contextualize the art of Andre Serrano, Annie Sprinkle, etc.

ip/cyber/1a stuff

  • Radikal Russ on Daily Kos posted about severe cognitive dissonance fostered by Grokster in the secondary liability rules:

    If a company makes a product that is inappropriately used to illegally copy a movie, that company is liable. If a company makes a product that is inappropriately used to illegally kill a human, that company is not liable. What’s the common logic holding these disparate concepts together? Massive corporate special interest money. Welcome to your government of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations, where a pirated copy of “Hollywood Homicide”* is bigger threat than an actual Hollywood homicide.

  • EFF is running a 15 anniversary blog-a-thon, in which people post about how they became information radicals (my phrase). Aggregators: Technorati and PubSub. [me too]
  • Nitke v. Ashcroft: First Amendment / CDA decision. Good commentary by Wirenius (plaintiff-side attorney). Other links: copyfight, rounding up various links; Wendy Seltzer, posting the decision.
  • NYT coverage of NY payola settlement with Sony. Check out some of the details at the Village Voice (7/26). So, what we have is a consolidated radio industry that generates its playlists in national headquarters takes payola for playing hits that nobody would otherwise want to hear. If I tried to devise the crappiest possible way of using scarce airwaves, seeking out talent, and maximalizing human fulfillment, it might look something like the current recording / radio industry.
  • more stuff on the PTO denial of the “Dykes on Bikes” TM: Cathy Resmer on the DTWOF blog. As a dyke, I can attest that I don’t find “dykes on bikes” at all offensive … PTO, please don’t protect me.
  • the pensacola news journal editorial about wal-mart’s refusal to carry their paper because of an anti-wal-mart column is a must-read. [link from copyfight] (PS: Wal-Mart lifted the ban & apologized [link from librarian.net])

bi lies, reprised

Remember the kerfuffle about the stupidly titled NYT article on bisexuality? (Straight, Gay or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited) The study, to be published in Psychological Science in Aug. 2005, was described by NYT science writer Benedict Carey as suggesting that there are no truly bisexual men, and indeed it seemed as if the study’s authors fostered that interpretation.

Bay Windows (the New England lgbt paper), and the Ottawa Citizen, got a different perspective from one of the authors, grad student Meredith Chivers, who described it as “ludicrous” to “reduce sexual orientation to a question of sexual arousal”. She also added that she and her coauthors “disagree[d] about the definition of sexual orientation. … I think the study shows that sexual orientation is a multifaceted and complex psychological construct and sexual arousal is only one part of that construct.”

Finally, commenting directly on the NYT coverage, she said:

I think the negative response to the New York Times article headline is warranted. I hope that people who are active in this controversy will also read the original article with an unbiased mind, so that they can decide for themselves, rather than unequivocally accept the information the media has provided thus far.

I hope so, too, but in fact most people won’t have access to Psychological Science ["The page you requested is only available to APS members"]. Without open access to the scientific literature, we must rely solely on science reporting. Which is why accurate reporting that captures nuance rather than elides it is so crucial.

update 8/15: americablog posted on 7/6 some interesting details about the study’s main author, Dr. J. Michael Bailey.

Related posts: Bi Lies (7/5)

patent reform reactions

The Professional Inventors Alliance USA is freaking out over a proposed patent rule change, to grant patents to first-inventor-to-file instead of first-inventor-to-invent. According to the PIAUSA’s President Ron Riley, this “unconscionable” and “unconstitutional” procedural change will “strip individuals of their constitutional rights and kill American invention”.

How might these dire consequences occur?

The first-to-file system would no longer reward American inventors for their original ideas, designs and years of hard work. Instead, large companies – even foreign companies – that somehow learn of an idea that was not theirs to begin with could file before the actual inventor and claim the patent rights.

Well — I’m sympathetic to that argument, not particularly wanting large companies to be able to swoop in on little-known inventions. Seems like the problem might be solved by a simple and inexpensive notice-filing system akin to the trademark intent-to-use application. (Of course that would create additional problems, like comparing the notice-filing application to the ultimate application….)

But still, what caught my eye, besides the absurdly extreme language, was the description of first-to-invent as a ‘constitutional’ right. In Art. I, Sect. 8, Clause 8, the Constitution grants to Congress the exclusive Power

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

The first-to-file might surely exclude some inventors from patent protection. But so does the first-to-invent system, which excludes any independent invention that cannot be proved to have been reduced to practice first or which happens to have been invented seconds later. Indeed, if I correctly recollect my patent priority timeline, the timeline was full of rather arbitrary lines in the sand about what can be proved when to establish priority. Each one of these points in time offers an opportunity for actual inventors to lose out (albeit to other ‘actual inventors’). So there currently are plenty of actual inventors who are deprived of the rights to their inventions, but somehow first-to-invent is suddenly a ‘Constitutional’ right.

Oh well. Shifting from first-to-invent to first-to-file is ultimately just a convenience for the PTO and brings the US into line with most of the rest of the world on that matter. Just logically, and also to avoid any grabby-big-business problems, I too would probably prefer first-to-invent. But with so many other more serious problems with the patent system, and so many other ways for grabby big businesses to screw their employee inventors, I can hardly get worked up about a shift to first-to-file.

comments back on & header fixed

nervously i am turning comments back on. spam karma 2 has been catching all the trackback spam, so i’m going to try it out on the regular comment spam. crossing fingers, knocking wood, and steadfastly refusing to walk in front of my black cat.

also, i fixed the header problem. i still claim that the site renders imperfectly in every browser thus far tested. but it renders less imperfectly than it did, thanks to avedon carol / sideshow who psst’ed about the header in her link. safari & firefox ignored the problem completely but i loaded up in IE and sure enough there was a series of error messages instead of a header. the perils of not browser-testing every time you tinker w/ layout & plugins are demonstrated again.

download legally … somewhere

I saw this on 125th St. in Harlem the other day:

RIAA Ad, Seen in Harlem on 125th St - Feed a Musician, Download Legally

The RIAA has begun their new ad campaign (leading a new front group called “Music United”). Apparently it’s important for the RIAA to pump money into promoting a trend that is already happening even without ads. (Could it be … that legal downloading is finally happening just because the friggin’ recording industry finally started licensing its catalogs with semi-reasonable terms and price points?)

I found it particularly ironic given the relative dearth of wireless in Harlem. Starbucks and McDonald’s offer the usual paid access, but otherwise, Harlem is still essentially a wireless dead zone — just as it was in 2002 when Elisa Batista surveyed Manhattan.

Hey, RIAA, I bet the kids in Harlem would like to download legally! Why don’t you get behind some of the community wireless initiatives to help them do it? That might be a little more useful than promoting something people are already doing in a neighborhood where they have relatively few opportunities to do it.

update 2005/8/15: The RIAA campaign has sparked a lot of annoyance out there in the blog-o-sphere. Here’s a sampling: The vitriolic monkey says that The RIAA Wipes Its Dick On The Curtains. I don’t know what that means but it sounds icky. Xeni Jardin at BoingBoing snapped a couple of shots of posts in LA and posted on Flickr; a few other commentators have added other spotted locations. Jason Schultz posted on Flickr a couple of altered posters in SF. (“Fair Use Has a Posse”, which, while I must surely be counted among the members of whatever posse fair use has, I must admit just doesn’t ring quite as well as Andre the Giant or Charles Darwin.). Reasoner notes the Sticker Wars with the RIAA in San Francisco, and points out “the unfortunate truth … that many of the major record labels are screwing over all but the most ‘successful’ musicians”. Terminally Incoherent saw the same from BoingBoing and described it as RIAA Brainwashing Continues. … But in all of this I still haven’t seen any other new poster snapshots, which makes me sad. Surely more people out there are taking snapshots of these posters?

iranian state murders 2 teens for same-sex activity

oh, this makes me sad: two teenagers in Iran were executed this week for same-sex sexual activity. M.A. and A.M., hanged in Edalat Square, in the City of Mashhad. [direland; seen on Pandagon] The direland site includes pictures of the young men, who are — were — just kids.

i want every fucking government in the world to stop killing people. and i want every fucking government in the world to get its fucking claws out of people’s sex lives. goddammit.

follow-up: 365gay.com reports that international protests are following. Russia is a potential key pressure point, as it does a lot of business with Iran. The HRC called for the US Dept of State to condemn the execution. (I won’t be holding my breath. While the US is interested in villifying Iran right now, I don’t think they’re going to start with where the Christian right in this country would like to end up.) OutRage, who has publicized the story in the English-speaking world, has gotten death threats to its officers from religious fundamentalists (Muslim).

update (7/30): Like Doug Ireland, I initially dismissed the allegations of ‘rape’ levied against the young men as cover-up for Iran’s government. The HRC did not, however, and removed their letter from their website. It’s too bad they removed the letter: sentencing same-sex sexual activity more strongly than opposite-sex sexual activity is still wrong, even where the underlying act is nonconsensual. As for whether or not the allegations are true, I am still disinclined to believe them. When sexuality is criminalized or socially repressed, crying ‘rape’ when caught can save one of the partners at the expense of the other. The history of interracial sexuality in the US is demonstrative, but same-sex sexuality has a similar, less commonly told, history. Sexual repression and criminalization thus add additional costs to society, in our ability to address sexual violence and assault.

action items: contact the US State Dept & ask for official condemnation.

owning photographs

In the fourth & final entry in Salon.com’s series on ‘ex-gay’ therapy ministries [‘True confessions‘], the writer describes how one ex-ex-gay’s attempt to control photographs of him is thwarted by copyright:

On the front page of the Exodus International Web site is a photograph of several dozen men and women. The allegedly changed homosexuals, or newly minted ex-gays, are beaming at the camera, apparently celebrating their newfound freedom from homosexuality. Standing in the center of the photograph is 29-year-old Shawn O’Donnell, who was enrolled in Exodus programs on and off for 10 years.

Exodus is the umbrella organization, information clearinghouse and referral service for “ex-gay ministries.”

The only problem with the Exodus photo is that O’Donnell is still gay.

Recently, O’Donnell asked Exodus president Alan Chambers to take his photo off the Exodus Web site. But Chambers, O’Donnell says, told him that Exodus owns the picture and it still signifies that people can change. “I said, ‘How can you say that is true when I know there are at least three people in that picture who have not changed?’” Exodus did not return my calls seeking comment about the photo.

This is a common misconception: people think they ‘own’ the photographs taken of them. In fact, no, they may own the prints of the photographs. But the photographer holds (‘owns’) the copyright, as the ‘author’ of the work. This FAQ written for photographers gives an idea of how photographers interpret copyright:

Even if one were to purchase an original portrait that was specially commissioned, the purchaser would only be able to frame and display the work. Unless the parties otherwise agree, the artist owns the copyright and the work cannot be copied or reproduced. Thus, without permission, the subject of the portrait cannot even make a holiday card from the painting.

Thus, some photofinishing labs (like Wal-Mart) have taken to refusing to duplicate photos that look ‘professional’ unless the holder has permission from the photographer. [See 5/30 story in sandiego.com; related commentary & links Ex Cathedra 6/8; Derivative Work 6/17]

tech mandates and reproductive care

I never cease to be astonished by how smarmy politicans can be: today, leaders in the Smarm Community, the anti-choice people (‘pro-lifers’). The latest RU-486 story in the NYT, sensationalistically titled “2 More Women Die After Abortion Pills”, covers two recent RU-486 deaths (two, for a total of five; four of which were probably infection-related). Naturally the pro-lifers jumped on it, using the opportunity to pontificate piously and misleadingly. Here’s “Concerned Women of America” policy director Wendy Wright:

“Sadly, people who support RU-486 apparently believe the risk of death is preferable to having a child.”

Wright’s politicized sorrow obscures the facts, some of which are included in the NYT article. It turns out that these two deaths are from infection after RU-486 abortion, and, statistically, the deathrate from infections after childbirth and abortion remains consistent across procedures and methods. [The NYT article fails to mention anything in response to this misleading quote; I would have thought that the risk of death from 'having a child' would have been appropriate here. The risk of long-term health problems, considerably greater for childbirth than for any method of abortion, might also have improved the article. But ranting about the NYT is a task for another day. For many other days.]

Politicized Research

The statistics are unsurprising, but in the politicized world of abortion statistics you would have difficulty verifying the data, or trying to flesh out Ms. Wright’s statement. For instance, if you googled something like ‘childbirth abortion mortality rates’, you could see that Google has been successfully bombed by a flood of political sites on the topic (largely anti-abortion). You have to get to the second page of results before you actually start seeing any material from the medical community.

A search of PubMed proved much more helpful. The scientific literature largely treats abortion, pregnancy, and birth control as part of a continuum of family planning and reproductive outcomes — what I’ll call the reproductive medicine approach. This makes sense. Research that seems tailor-made to proving somebody’s point about abortion (from whatever perspective) is just inherently less trustworthy.

The reproductive medicine approach makes clear that when the government gets involved in restricting women’s reproductive choices there are clear medical consequences: Whatever the risks of specific procedures, techniques, and reproductive outcomes, what’s really risky is lack of access to family planning and contraception. Unplanned pregnancies are, ultimately, the cause of most pregnancy & childbirth-related mortality, by leading to high-risk pregnancy, or in many countries, illegal or quasi-legal abortion. In the US, for instance, restrictions on abortion delay many women’s access to the very safe first trimester abortion, perversely leading to more late-term abortions. But the message from those who would politicize and involve the government in individual medical decisionmaking, is never about healthcare or policy, probably because the healthcare policies they would propose would be unacceptable to most people. Instead, they focus on particular technologies, techniques, and procedures — effectively establishing technological mandates and prohibitions.

Technological Mandates Are Bad Government

It’s almost never a good idea for the government to establish technological mandates. Technological developments are notoriously difficult to second-guess or steer; tech mandates all too often exemplify the law of unintended consequences [Library of Economics, WikiPedia]. Whenever Congress or state legislators try to take aim at specific technologies, they end up effecting a lot of other changes, scattershot. And any technologically specific law is bound to be out of date very quickly.

We usually think of tech mandates & prohibitions in geeky areas, like copyright: the DMCA (thou shalt not tamper with copy protection measures, etc.); DAT (digital audio tape recorder manufacturers shall include copy protection schemes); broadcast flags (thou shalt include broadcast flag recognition technology in video recorders). But the same impulses are clearly at play in the politics around abortion and birth control. And as in copyright, politicians’ attempts to mark out this or that technology, technique or method as sinful and wrong is bad policy. The politicization of this or that reproductive medicine technique (most recently emergency contraception and intact dilation and extraction, or so-called ‘partial-birth abortion’) only hampers attempts to improve reproductive medicine and outcomes for women, infants, and their families.

Abortion is only the most obvious example. Legislators do nobody any favors when they start toying with technological mandates in any field.* Look at the recent Congressional hearings on stem-cell research. Saletan in Slate tried to put a good spin on it: These guys are working really hard & exploring the issues; isn’t that nice? Yeah, that’s nice from a personal growth standpoint, but the problem is these guys are making laws about very specific techniques, and they have no clue what they’re talking about, much less doing. They don’t understand biology, they don’t understand genetics, they don’t understand development.

But Congress members do understand policy-making, and one might argue that they understand ethics. Well, err, anyway, they understand policy-making. So if Congress members feel they must Take Action, then I have a suggestion for them: Do what you know — make policy. Set out broad principles of respect for life (which includes the lives and health of women as well as the lives of their potential children) and autonomy. Fund research into family planning methods that enhance autonomy and health. Make principled statements that are general about no wanton cruelty (or whatever) in harvesting stem cells. Skip the specific tech mandates.

Then Congress could let the NSF & NIH apply those guidelines when funding specific grants. That’s what regulators & grantors are good at: reviewing specific proposals to see if they fall within general guidelines. And Congress could let the courts interpret those terms in the course of litigation. That’s what courts are good at: reviewing the facts of particular cases, heartwrenching, difficult cases, and figuring out how to apply broad principles. And Congress could stop grandstanding and micromanaging cases (like Schiavo) and technologies (anything to do with biology, family planning, and copyright protection is by definition a Bad Idea for Congress to muck with — others no doubt will occur).

follow-up: 2005/7/25: The AP version of the story also pointed out that the women who got the infection and took the drugs may not have followed FDA-approved instructions.

The agency also said the four deaths occurred among women who were treated at clinics that didn’t follow FDA-approved instructions for the two- pill regimen. Although the FDA stressed that it could not prove that the “off- label” use was to blame, its new public health advisory warns doctors of the possible link to such use.

The fifth death followed a ruptured tubal pregnancy, a dangerous condition and type of pregnancy that the drug does not terminate.

Geez. Could the NYT article have been any less informative?


* For that matter, technological mandates & prohibitions really might be considered a subspecies of micromanaging generally. The Terri Schiavo fiasco demonstrates why legislators should stay out of individual cases, and far, far out of medical decisionmaking.

no, not enough ads in the world

In today’s NYT article about ‘tattooed fruit’, this line caught my eye:

“With the right scanning technology the produce could even be bar-coded with lots of information: where it comes from, who grew it, who picked it, even how many calories it has per serving,” said Fred Durand III, president of Durand-Wayland. “You could have a green pepper that was completely covered with coding. Or you could sell advertising space.”

Hey, what a good idea! Because there aren’t enough ads already.

PTO’s standards for offensive

Apparently the PTO is protecting us all from the offensive term “Dykes”. See Jason Schultz; SFGate. Very annoying and what poor judgment. ‘Offensive’ really ought to refer to terms used offensively, as in, attacks on someone or something. The way the PTO interprets offensive — a term that can be used disparagingly — any freaking TM app could be rejected! Hmm.

artistic innovation & racism

The NYT ran two articles today on copies of art, both listed on the front page in the respective sections: One listed in the “arts” section and titled “Imitations That Transcend Flattery” by Roberta Smith, and the other breathlessly titled Own Original Chinese Copies of Real Western Art! by Keith Bradsher, and listed in the business section. [By 245 this afternoon when I got back to this draft, I noted that the front page title of "Original Chinese Copies" had been changed, and "Imitations That Transcend" had been taken off the front page; both are listed in the arts page and "Original Chinese Copies" is still in the business section.]

I’m sure this is an NYT editorial accident, left hand, right hand, lack of knowledge, etc., but reading the two articles together gave me a queasy feeling, like when you’re watching a movie and suddenly realize you need 3D glasses. The color information is shifted just slightly, creating two different accounts of the world. Once I put on my special 3D Glasses of Power*, everything righted itself: in fact, I got a whole different picture, and a lot of new information poppped out.

OK, the metaphor can’t go on forever. For one thing, these are not exactly the same two articles. The two articles are on different issues and consequently take different tones: “Original Chinese Copies!” is a standard business section article about the cheap oil painting (aka ‘mass art’ or ‘hotel art’) industry: China has gotten into the industry & the American industry is (or may be) suffering from the competition. “Imitations That Transcend”, on the other hand, is a standard artist/exhibition article: it focuses on one artist, Richard Pettibone, who does “appropriation art”, and discusses him and his current show, which consists of miniatures of famous paintings.

But perspectives are indeed shifted across these two articles, and noticing that, you notice a few other things. First, obviously, race: “Original Chinese Copies!” feeds into a racist stereotype of Asian people that was much in evidence during the 70s & 80s, when many US newspapers ran stories about the Japan-US trade deficit and Japanese businesspeople (well, let’s be honest: businessmen) buying up American landmarks, property, etc. At the same time there was a lot of fairly blatant racism in US media, e.g., pundits talking about how the Japanese imitated US innovations but didn’t come up with their own ideas. The idea was that the Japanese are just so good & efficient at copying that they beat ‘us’, despite our brilliance, and as a result of our good nature & the post-WW2 reconstruction. I’m sure the racism in that media coverage has been analyzed half to death elsewhere. And I don’t want to have to point it out, but the same themes popped up in this article: the Chinese are doing mass production, they’re very good at copying, etc. And they’re a threat: “China is creating a fast-growing army of trained artists”. (An army of artists. … Hmm. Sounds pretty good, to me, and probably a hell of a lot cheaper, not to mention safer, than an army of, err, armed soldiers.)

Questions of originality, authenticity, quality, the definition and value of art, aesthetics, ethnically identifiable schools of art, etc., are elided through smirky punctuation with an unpleasant racial undertone: The author politely refrains from discussing the ‘quality’ of the Chinese copies, while making his opinion known through the scare quotes around ‘quality’. This is a perfect entree to a point about one person’s art being another person’s garbage liner, and might have been useful in an article about mass art oil paintings. Instead the ‘quality’ line gets dropped into a section to further contrast between Chinese art (industrial-style, copied) and American art (original). No mention here of the ‘quality’ of the American hotel-art industry’s output. And check out the headline: Someone, the author or the editor, entitled the article “Own Original Chinese Copies of Real Western Art!”. ‘Real’? ‘Western Art’? Where to begin. I don’t mind a business article not getting into the fine points of what makes art Art, but don’t furtively raise the issues in a racist context through the use of snide punctuation.

And then there’s the discussion of copyright, which plays into a new wine, old bottles theme in the business press: “Oh these Asian countries are so bad! They don’t respect our copyrights!”

Exporters of Chinese paintings say that even though the paintings often imitate well-known works of art, the copies are inherently different because they are handmade, and so do not violate copyrights.

Robert Panzer, the executive director of the Visual Artists and Galleries Association, a trade group based in New York, disagreed. He said that the vast majority of paintings produced before the 20th century were in the public domain and could be freely copied and sold. But it is not legal to sell a painting that appears to a reasonable person like a copy of a more recent, copyrighted work, he said.

The old bottles for this new w(h)ine? Still the same old racism-tinged stories from the 70s & 80s: Asian countries are bad! bad! and they’re hurting our business interests. What’s so sad about this particular whine is that it’s just sort of tossed in the mix to further taint the Chinese mass-art industry with Badness; the copyright material is almost completely gratuitous to the article. Nowhere in the article, for instance, does it describe any instances of a Western painting, still under copyright, that was actually duplicated. Nor are the copyright concerns ever discussed in the context of the US mass-art industry: if the US mass-art industry used to be such hot shit, then how did they deal with copyright issues attaching to not-very-original hotel art? China might like to know! But no — the copyright issue isn’t seriously discussed; it’s just tossed in, perhaps by order of editor, to lengthen a too-short piece.

So when writing a business story about mass art, why not just throw in some gratuitous discussion of the Bad Bad Chinese Communist Copiers? Everyone else does. Coverage of international copyright markets and issues is subtly infused with a significant racial dynamic. It’s not like I came up with this half-baked idea on my own — I came up with it after years of reading the same stories over and over and over again. Eventually, after reading yet one more article about how a developing nation is thumbing its nose at US copyright imperialism (ahem), I cottoned to the fact that I had read a lot more articles about Asian copyright infringement than any other kind.

I bet anyone else following these issues in the US has too. Consider how often we hear about the thriving Asian & South/Central American markets for illegally copied works (usually videos and recorded music). Those brown people sure are bad, disrespecting our copyrights and hurting our native copyright industries! Contrast the badness of people of color with the similarly thriving market in Russia & Poland, nations peopled with people of pallor. The only significant media coverage these markets got in recent memory was when the entertainment industry decided to drop its prices in Russia to compete with the ‘black’ market. ** Or what about Norway? It just doesn’t get any whiter than Norway, which not only has ‘black’ markets in copyrighted goods, but whose court system declared that Jon Lech Johansen, teen auteur of DeCSS, was A-okay. Finland is a veritable outlaw nation! Surely the press ‘tars’ the Finnish with the brush of piracy? Not.

The MPAA, god bless its tiny little nonracist copyright maximalist heart, wants to target all ‘pirate’ nations, including “Brazil, Malaysia, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Taiwan, and Thailand.” (2003/Feb/16) The MPAA was particularly concerned with Russia and South Africa. But a LexisNexis Academic search for “(copyright w/5 (piracy or pirate)) AND (china or asia or korea)” in the business & finance section of the news returned 831 hits; whereas the same search, replacing the countries with (russia or soviet or poland or finland or norway) produced 66 articles; adding in africa (russia or soviet or poland or finland or norway or africa) doubled the results to bring us to 130. (4 of the first 25 articles of this set headline only Asian countries!) Alas, I couldn’t really do a full-Asian search, which would have also included India, Pakistan, etc.; the Academic LexisNexis subscription I am using rejected search sets with over a thousand results. Media coverage of international copyright infringement and international markets in copyright infringed works seems to focus disproportionately on Asian nations.

It’s a convenient story for the American business press, after all. The Asian copyright violation story fits the larger narrative of an Asian threat to US industries, and simultaneously reinforces the image of unoriginal but but frighteningly efficient Asian copyists.

… So, okay, another bad article in a series of largely bad business articles about the entertainment industry and copyright infringement over the years. But the NYT ran this particular bad article simultaneously with another article, profiling an artist who truly is outright copying art, and not just public domain or arguably barely original works, but works that are famous, recognizable, and still under copyright restrictions. (Okay, possibly still barely original.)

From the copyright critical perspective, “Imitations That Transcend” was certainly better than “Original Chinese Copies”. “Imitations That Transcend” profiled Richard Pettibone, an artist who is grappling with questions of originality and the definition of art. By contrast, “Original Chinese Copies” alludes to copyright infringement as a means of villification of a competitive industry.

Of course, “Imitations That Transcend” is not without its problems. It mentions numerous male artists but neglects to mention virtually any female artists. Not surprising, perhaps: as the Guerilla Girls have long documented, even in the 21st century sexism flourishes within the art world. And as so much of the NYT’s writing, article describes the artistic ambitions of the art without actually engaging the ambition or analyzing them. I found that particularly ironic in an Arts article about an artist who deconstructs Art.

But it was the juxtaposition of “Imitations That Transcend” with “Original Chinese Copies” that really caught my eye, as a real-time demonstration of everything that was wrong with these articles, and, for that matter, a real-time demonstration also of Richard Pettibone’s alleged concerns with the definition of art and ideas, too. It’s too perfect. In the Arts section, we get a self-important article describing Real Art, but completely neglecting to actually connect the issues within the Art to any real world concerns or indeed any actual engagement with the issues the subject Artist purports to raise. And in the Business section, we get cheap villification of people of color (mere copiests in an ‘army’ warring against Fine American Art and artists’ colonies), softened by some gentle condescension of the Chinese artists’ individual human ambitions. Top it all off by the polite use of punctuation to allude to commentary without actually giving any: the ‘quality’ of the art is scare quoted, in lieu of actual discussion. And the ultimate irony, ‘Real Western Art!’ is given pride of place in the headline.

Hey, who needs artists to create irony, when you have the NYT editors.


* 3D Glasses of Power! Get them today! Feminism! Antiracism! Copyright Criticism! Knowledge is power, and with the 3D Glasses of Power!, you will have all the knowledge you can handle!

** Arrggh! [Tearing my hair out in frustration.] ‘Black’ market, indeed.

charles darwin’s posse

A friend passed me this stamp along with the following message for ‘pro-science subversives’:

Charles Darwin has a posse.

These stickers are being introduced to increase awareness and appreciation of Charles Darwin. His theory of natural selection provided a simple, non-supernatural explanation for how life on earth had evolved and continues to evolve. Although scientists worldwide view evolution and natural selection as completely uncontroversial, popular support in the United States is waning, especially with respect to the origin of humans. Without more public displays of affection for the theories of natural selection and evolution, it is likely that more and more schools will allow or even promote the teaching of evolution “alternatives” that invoke dabbling by supernatural entities. To provide some of the needed visible support for science and reason, please consider stickering something with his image. Sure, these efforts are probably completely futile, but wouldn’t you sleep better tonight knowing that you’ve done your part to delay our slip into Dark Ages II? Instructions and tips can be found below. Thanks!

http://www.swarthmore.edu/NatSci/cpurrin1/evolk12/posse/chazhasaposse.htm

… And in keeping with my passion for noting cultural begats, I note that designer Colin Purrington says of the image that

The overall design shamelessly emulates the “Andre The Giant Has A Posse” art project that I got to witness when I was a youth in Providence.

“André the Giant Has a Posse” was conceived by Frank Shepard Fairey and “at least one other unidentified person”. The WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment] threatened a lawsuit (presumably right of publicity?) and the image mutated into a more iconic image with the words “OBEY” or “DISOBEY”. More info at obeygiant.com and Wikipedia.

air guitar … celebrity impersonations

The NYT ran this article from New York’s reigning air guitar champ. [NYT 7/"10"] I wonder if these rock’n’rollers acknowledge the debt they owe to drag queens and lip-syncing celebrity impersonators, who have been competitively dragging since at least the 30s? [see Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town (1993) and Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America (1972), both by Esther Newton.] Probably — “clothes make the air guitarist” according to the author, and the clothes seem to be fabulous: Brooklynite C-Diddy won the world crown in 2003 “festooned with a Hello Kitty breastplate and crimson kimono”, and the author’s costume is a “silver jumpsuit and star-spangled armbands filled with dry ice”.

Rock on, dudes! I can’t wait to go to my first drag king air guitar show.